Discovering Rituals & Ceremonies



The Pahlevani and Zoorkhanei rituals in Iran are a peculiar mixture of weight-lifting, dancing, gymnastics and music which have been around for 2,000 years, and now it’s possible for outsiders to experience them. Iran is opening up to travel (although it’s a massive country and there are no internal flights due to a lack of spare parts for planes), but this is one of the intriguing places I’d love to visit.

In the past I’ve have taken part in Bedouin opium rituals, Japanese tea ceremonies and Egyptian boating chorales. As a tourist it’s possible to see whirling dervish dances, Spanish Sardanas and Sri Lankan drumming festivals that aren’t merely staged for outsiders, but we only scratch the surface of the world’s extraordinary history of communal activities.

One of the more shocking rituals I’ve seen is the spontaneous firing of rifles at Arabic events. Killing time outside the souk in Nizwa, Oman, I spoke to a merchant selling rifles, knives and canes. ‘Our love of rifles is misunderstood,’ he explained. ‘They hold an important ceremonial purpose, together with the curved knives. Guns are fired into the air for celebration at weddings and circumcisions. We do not hunt with them. Every Friday there is a weapons market, a tradition dating back over four centuries.’ It was easy to see how news footage of celebrating Arabs could be misinterpreted. ‘What about the canes?’ I asked, pointing at several varieties of decorated whippy sticks. ‘They have many different meanings but those are for beating naughty children,’ he replied.

The good thing is that the opening of tourism does not stop or damage age-old ceremonies. In certain cases they’ve been revived due to renewed interest; look at the Jack-in-the-Green ceremonies that take place once more around the rural British Isles. My former producer once went to a small island off the coast of Scotland to film an harvest ceremony, and said to a local lady; ‘It feels as if there’s something very odd going on here.’ To which she replied; ‘There is, but we don’t talk about it with strangers.’

England is so dotted with symbols of ritual that we treat them with disinterest or disrespect. There was surprisingly little outrage when betting-for-mugs group Paddy Power altered the Uffington horse by adding a jockey on its back. The Daily Mail seemed to think it was a great jape, and only comedian Stewart Lee castigated them in print (although his words were cut by the hair-gel freesheet Shortlist).

England is different to America in that, like Europe, it has ancient indigenous ceremonies, although Stephen King’s ‘Children of the Corn’ and Thomas Tryon’s ‘Harvest Home’ both come close to inventing them from Americana. The point about Britain’s ‘The Wicker Man’ is that most – if not all – of the rituals and ceremonies it featured were already in place. I’ve long wanted to set a book on one of the smaller British isles – which, like Italy, has more than you realise.

Most of the smaller London rituals are barely acknowledged and close to vanishing, like the handing out of hot cross buns at The Widow’s Son and Beating the Bounds. My question today is; do we form new rituals? If you know of any new ones, tell me about them.

7 comments on “Discovering Rituals & Ceremonies”

  1. Jackie Hayles says:

    We have a fabulous Jack in the Green weekend in Hastings every May; on the day of the procession and “killing of the Jack” by pulling apart his foliage and distributing it to the crowd, there is also a bikers’ meet – thousands of huge, phallic motocycles line the promenade, in a further display of yang power, echoing the beating of the sticks of the black-clad Morris dancers who don’t all look twee. There are also giants, huge stilted papier-mache puppets which have developed over the years to include a Raven Queen and a Mermaid. In a fortnight we have the Fire Procession, similar to that at Lewes, complete with an effigy to be burned. These days Guy Fawkes is not the object of hatred, as many people sympathise with his desire to overturn the established order. This procession also celebrates the fact that due to an ancient treaty, part of Hastings – the America Ground – is supposedly free of the laws of the land: The Purge, 24/7.

  2. Wayne #1 says:

    Isn’t checking your Twitter Feed a new ritual many perform on a regular basis? Or for that mater updating your FB status!

  3. David Skinner says:

    Maybe the key to deciding whether “watching Strictly”, “getting a winter flu jab”, “spectacles-testicles-wallet-and-watch” or “wearing clothes in public” count as modern rituals would be to think about the reasons why folks had rituals in times gone-by. Were they all about appeasing a deity? Or were some regarded as practical elements of daily life? Or was there no real distinction there? Were some simply done as an excuse for a knees-up? Or out of habit? Presumably, many deadly-serious god-pleasing laws gradually evolved into vague superstitions, and continue to do so today. When does that sort of thing cease to be a ritual?

  4. Helen Martin says:

    Consider the history of China and then look at the rituals surrounding the New Year. Sweeping only before a day or afterward, but never on the day. Foods you must or must never eat at the new year because their names sound like items of good omen. Smearing honey on the kitchen god’s image to make sure he takes only good tales to the celestial emperor.

  5. Jan says:

    You are wrong to think America has no ancient rituals. The indigenous American people’s had a complex intriguing view of the world and temples to the forces with hey believed caused the earth to turn. St Louis in particular was known as mound town until some enormous structures were obliterated when the world fair (Meet me in St. Louis song remember) was held there. The whole Missipian culture is fascinating and includes I believe the l largest pyramid structure ever created. The native Americans also created stone cave like structures to store grain and keep seeds,viable over greatly extended periods. Their culture sadly obliterated by the arrival of Europeans seems to have been dynamic + n tune with nature.

    The ceremonies may not be in a form immediately recognised by Europeans Chris but to think they don;t exist or in some way matter less is a great mistake.

  6. Jan says:

    I never realised Paddy power has provided the Uffington horse with a jockey! Shocking! – but the actual horse which is pretty spectacular in itself is less than half the story at Uffington. The actual site in the amazing bowl which amplifys sound enormously and the “mirror image” nature of the whole setting is amazing. There is a theory that the blowing stone now situated a short distance away in front of an ordinary little row of cottages might at sometime being sited at Uffington and the sound it created when blown in that sound amplification setting must have been mighty. There’s also a spring in the large clump of trees just on the other side of the road from the ancient site which prior to the creation of the road was p probably included in the site of ancient ritual. It’s all there the modified flat topped hill the mirror image,site the nearby ancient history Uffington castle pretty amazing place

  7. Jan says:

    Spelling and grammar went bit awry …..ancient Uffington castle is in fact ancient hill fort connected by trackway to Waylands Smithy. There is a fantastic ritual centre of ancient culture in this part of Oxon. There are supposed to have been remnants of an ancient hill fort found( as far as I can remember) under one of the Oxford colleges Keble it might have been this ancient earthwork was supposed to have been massive but little has been written about it that I have been able to find.

    Lots of little things in connection with the Oxford colleges stress the,importance of the place over a massively long period perhaps into ancient. times

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